Many in Northern Virginia’s sizable Vietnamese community were shocked last month when the popular Eden Center shopping mall in Falls Church was swarmed by the regional gang task force and 19 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges, mostly illegal gambling.
But it got more tense the next day, when the task force held a news conference to declare that Eden Center was paralyzed by gang activity, particularly by the “Dragon Family,” and that shootings, stabbings and extortion were prevalent. At least one television report led with an image of the South Vietnamese flag above the headline “Criminal Gang Activity,” which outraged those who see the flag as a sacred symbol of their lost homeland.
So while Vietnamese business leaders worked to repair Eden Center’s image, many in the community looked to Wednesday morning, when the first five defendants charged with illegal gambling would go to trial. The suspects said they had been sitting in the mall’s numerous coffee shops or bars and had been unfairly swept up by the raid. More than two dozen supporters gathered with signs outside the Falls Church City Hall and courthouse, and then filed into the courtroom to watch the trials.
The results thrilled them: The first defendant was found not guilty of illegal gambling after a trial, and charges against the next four defendants were dismissed. Spectators broke into applause after Arlington General District Court Judge Thomas J. Kelley Jr. acquitted the first defendant, and they were ejected from the courtroom, but they remained jubilant outside as the other defendants walked free.
“That was very important for the community,” said Due Tran, the defendants’ lawyer and counsel for the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Washington. “But the big fight now is to equalize the playing field, get Falls Church its reputation back as a strong business center.”
Tran also said the community would meet with city officials to erase any crime at Eden Center and establish a strong working relationship with police.
Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh said Wednesday afternoon: “I think we have a good relationship with the Vietnamese community,” and “we welcome the opportunity for more dialogue and cooperation.” That dialogue began Monday at a City Council meeting, at which Vietnamese merchants said they supported police action against criminal activity.
But many also said they think officers were guilty of harassment or racism.
Gang task force officials remain adamant that there is a gang problem at Eden Center. Although no one has been charged with a felony or gang-related crime in relation to the Aug. 11 raid, they say those charges are coming.
Ray Colgan, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said that investigators were there after receiving complaints from some business owners and customers, and that gambling was only the first component of the case to be charged, not the last.
A police search warrant affidavit filed before the raid, for the Asia Supermarket, said informants and undercover officers had gambled and received payouts on a video machine inside. A second affidavit, after the raid, said the owners acknowledged making payouts, although no gang links were mentioned. Colgan said: “I’m confident saying we’ve linked the ownership of some [gambling] machines to the gangs.”
On Wednesday morning, more than a month after the raid, Falls Church prosecutor Daniel J. Conway said he was unprepared to try the first five misdemeanor cases. He asked Kelley for additional time to examine the video machines seized in the raid.
With a courtroom full of witnesses waiting to testify, Kelley asked Conway why that had not already been done. “This is a large operation,” Conway said. “We just have not had sufficient time to put this thing together.”
Kelley rejected the prosecutor’s request.
Conway then prosecuted Jack Hoang for illegal gambling. Hoang had been sitting in Cafe Dang near a video machine at the time of the raid. Investigator Larry Reed of the gang task force said that he had taken Hoang to the kitchen and that Hoang told him “that was the first time he had gambled. He advised me that he lost a dollar.”
Hoang said through an interpreter that he speaks little English and did not understand some of Reed’s questions but that he never said he was gambling.
He said he had stopped at the cafe to get coffee on his way home to Maryland.
Reed also did not see Hoang gambling or receive a payout, and he did not know whether the video machine near Hoang had any role in gambling.
The judge said that no evidence was produced about actual gambling machines or payouts. He found Hoang not guilty.
Conway then dismissed the cases against the remaining four gambling defendants. He declined to comment after the hearings.